Meet the researchers using 3D models to catalog species without killing them

Strange things crawl out of the Irschick Lab.

A few years ago, biologist Duncan Irschick helped create Geckskin, a super-adhesive that mimics the mechanics of gecko feet. In January, he developed the Beastcam, a portable camera array that can snap high-resolution, full-color 3D images of living organisms.

Now, the University of Massachusetts Amherst researcher is leading one of the most ambitious imaging initiatives around — 3D modeling every living species on Earth and publishing the data through Digital Life.

“In the field, people often have to kill an animal to preserve it,” Irschick tells Digital Trends. “With our 3D models, the animal can stay alive.

“If you discovered a new species in the wild, how fantastic would it be if you could create a 3D model of the living animal right there,” he asks, “capturing it’s color, shape, and posture?”

The Beastcam array consists of 30 cameras, three on each of its 10 arms. The device takes 30 simultaneous snapshots and uses software to stitch them all together into a 3D representation.

“The current system is designed for smaller animals who pose really well for photographs,” Irschick says, listing frogs and geckos as particularly good subjects. “So the current range is from about three-and-a-half inches to 10 inches, but in the next several months we’ll have the capacity to capture animals from half an inch to six feet or more.

“In the field, people often have to kill an animal to preserve it. With our 3D models, the animal can stay alive.”

When imaging larger creatures like sharks in more precarious environments outside the lab, Irschick and his team turn to a handheld Beastcam, which they sweep around the specimen manually.

“Our plan is to adapt this technology to a variety of animals” says conservation photographer Christine Shepard, who helps lead the initiative. “We’re looking at a number of animal groups — at their shape and mobility — and working with our multidisciplinary team to adapt this technology to best fit each type of group.”

Nine 3D models are available on the Digital Life website, including an emperor scorpion, horned frog, and birch fungus. “As far as I’m aware, ours is the only high-resolution 3D shark model,” Irschick says. Each can now be viewed in virtual reality, with dozens more models and exportable 3D printing files on the way. Over the next year, Irschick thinks they’ll have captured images of hundreds of species.

But each species is unique and every specimen has its quirks. One size won’t fit all. “Some sharks are really fat,” Irschick says, “and others are really skinny. We want to capture that.” By developing versatile Beastcams, the researchers hope to tailor their technology to the particular species and specimens they’re imaging.

The initiative insists on ethical handling of animals, so it aims to image live specimens only when they’re already being handled for parallel scientific study, which Shepard says sets the project apart from others.

These models also have significant scientific value, she says, as highly-accurate depictions of living creatures are rare. Along with the models, the researchers will record metadata on measurements, locations, and species information, which can be accessed for further research.

And these models may help wildlife conservation groups engage the public in novel ways, with 3D printed objects and virtual reality to spark the interest of potential donors.

Irshick Lab

Finally — and perhaps most promisingly — is the project’s educational potential. “We can create this virtual biology lab of the future where students can interact with animals that they otherwise wouldn’t get to see in real life due to geographic restraints or the rarity of the animal,” Shepard says. “We’re really hoping to increase access to valuable species and empower students to learn in an interactive way.”

Over the next year, Irschick and his team will be traveling around the world thanks to support from the National Science Foundation. From the Philippines in May to Florida in June, they’ll partner with field researchers to image endangered species of toads and sea turtles before moving on to more complicated creatures. Along the way they’ll continue to test and adapt their imaging techniques for their future subjects.

It may take generations to image the nearly trillion species thought to exist on Earth, but every species that’s captured is a species that’s digitally preserved.

Emerging Tech

Rise of the Machines: Here’s how much robots and A.I. progressed in 2018

2018 has generated no shortage of news, and the worlds of A.I. and robotics are no exception. Here are our picks for the most exciting, game changing examples of both we saw this year.
Emerging Tech

There’s a new lab-grown meat startup on the block — and it has a secret weapon

Aleph Farms is developing lab-grown steaks with the same flavor, shape, texture, and structure as the real thing using beef cells isolated from living cows. Coming soon to a store near you?
Photography

These are the best action cameras money can buy

Action cameras are great tools for capturing videos of your everyday activities, whether it's a birthday party or the steepest slope you've ever descended on your snowboard. These are the best money can buy.
Gaming

The hottest Nintendo Switch games you can get right now

The Nintendo Switch's lineup started off small, but games have steadily released as the console continues through its second year. Here are the best Nintendo Switch games available now, from Super Mario Odyssey to Fortnite.
Smart Home

This A.I.-enabled tech brings cutting-edge automation to grocery stores

Takeoff Technologies is working to make grocery deliveries fast, accurate, and convenient using A.I.-enabled technology to augment robotic grocery orders that can be completed in minutes.
Product Review

This was 3D printed? With the Anycubic Photon, you can't tell

Never mind the fact that the Anycubic Photon 3D printer only costs 500 bucks. In terms of sheer print quality, this printer is on the same level as machines that cost six times as much.
Emerging Tech

Postmates’ to roll out Minion-like autonomous delivery robots in 2019

Postmates is about to employ a cute little robot to work alongside its human delivery personnel. Called Serve, the wheel-based bot can carry items weighing up to 50 pounds and has a range of 30 miles.
Emerging Tech

The best 3D printers of 2018

On the hunt for a new 3D printer? We've got your back. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned veteran, this list of the best 3D printers has what you're looking for.
Emerging Tech

The best drone photos from around the world

Most of today's drones come equipped with high-end cameras, which are quickly revolutionizing the world of aerial photography as we know it. Here are some of the best drone photos from around the world.
Emerging Tech

Are e-cigarettes safe? Here’s what the most recent science says

Ecigarettes are widely regarded and advertised as a healthier alternative to cigarettes for people who are trying to kick the smoking habit. How safe are these cigarette alternatives? We went deep into the recent scientific literature to…
Emerging Tech

Thrill-seekers will be able to pilot themselves in a giant drone as soon as 2019

Want to hitch a ride on a giant drone? The startup Lift Aircraft is gearing up to let paying customers fly its 18-rotor giant drones over assorted scenic landscapes across the U.S.
Emerging Tech

CRISPR gene therapy regulates hunger, staves off severe obesity in mice

Researchers from UC San Francisco have demonstrated how CRISPR gene editing can be used to prevent severe obesity in mice, without making a single edit to the mouse's genome. Here's how.
Emerging Tech

Capture app saves money by 3D scanning objects using iPhone’s TrueDepth camera

Capture is a new iPhone app created by the Y Combinator-backed startup Standard Cyborg. It allows anyone to perform 3D scans of objects and share them with buddies. Here's how it works.
Emerging Tech

Sick of walking everywhere? Here are the best electric skateboards you can buy

Thanks for Kickstarter and Indiegogo, electric skateboards are carving a bigger niche than you might think. Whether you're into speed, mileage, or something a bit more stylish, here are the best electric skateboards on the market.